Those of us who live or regularly spend time on the North Carolina coast recognize that there are five drivers that attract and contribute to the region: tourism, the military, agriculture, forestry, and fishing. A great battle is being waged for our waters, specifically over fishing regulations.
The war has been going on for years, but recently the volume has been amplified. The combatants include commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, and state regulators, and the fight threatens to further divide our state.
One point on which most agree is that over the last twenty years our fish and shellfish stocks have been depleted to the point that current stocks are not sufficient to annually replenish many species.
David Sneed, director of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group that represents recreational fishermen, said: “I mean in those twenty years of overfishing, the commercial industry took 70 to 80 per cent of the harvest. They are the reason we are on this ship today. They are the ones that have had the greatest impact on the action.” His group has been suing the state since 2020 to make it more accountable, saying state regulators and politicians have allowed commercial fishing interests to dominate regulatory policy, because commercial interests have made significant campaign contributions to the political candidates.
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A few years ago, I wrote a column complaining about the problem of overfishing. A commercial fisherman didn’t like my article and he called the local newspaper, telling the editor that if he ever published another one of my columns, his company would not support the paper in the future. The editor called to apologize, but she said that she needed her financial support and that she would honor the request.
In late February of this year, the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) met in New Bern and, after a lengthy and contentious discussion, agreed on plans for management of shrimp and flounder. Earlier this month, a group of about 30 protesters gathered outside the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries in Morehead City to complain about the new policies. One protester complained that the state doesn’t allow him to keep the flounder he catches, but he can go to most seafood markets and buy one. Not good, he says.
The new flounder management plan would limit those with a recreational license to taking one flounder per person per day. They adopted a 70-30 rule, saying that between now and 2024 commercial fishing can take 70 percent of the harvest and cap recreational interests at 30 percent. Additionally, they recommend a 50-50 split beginning in 2026. Additionally, shrimpers would not be allowed to fish in designated crab sanctuaries. When commercial fishermen strongly opposed the plan, the commission watered it down to include fewer areas than initially proposed.
Commercial fishermen are a valuable industry in our state, putting seafood on our tables. Their payrolls are essential to coastal economies and they should be able to make a living at their trade. But that does not mean that they can fish as much as they want, when they want and with whatever means they want. Equally valuable is the contribution of recreational fishermen, who generate dollars from tourism, including motel and cabin rentals, purchases from tackle stores, hiring of fishing guides, purchases from marine outfitters and other retailers. They are important to our heritage and way of life.
There must be room for commercial and recreational interests to co-exist in a fair environment. To ensure fairness with limited resources, our regulators and legislators will need to have the wisdom of the biblical King Solomon, who had to discern between two women who claimed to be mothers of a baby.
Here’s my twist: Using another water metaphor, if the bottom of the boat has a hole in it, it doesn’t matter where you sit. In other words, trying to blame or place blame does not help to find a solution. Other coastal states have not faced the decades-long battles that ours has. Let us study how they navigate these waters. Then we need to re-examine our entire regulatory process, starting with our regulatory structure, how we make these important decisions, and who needs to be at the table when they’re made. We need to establish a regulatory process with decision makers that includes commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen, as well as other interests such as guides, restaurants, and seafood vendors. Maybe even environmentalists.
It’s time for North Carolina to stop fighting and fish or cut the bait. And the sooner the better.